It would take a truly massive boxed set to encompass the recordings made on the late John Peel’s radio show, but the many recently released tribute compilations comprise a fitting memorial. Perhaps the most intimate of these collections comes from long-time Peel favorite PJ Harvey. Instead of a complete document of her appearances on the program, Harvey opts for a hand-picked set of twelve songs peppered with B-sides and rarities. This selection method lacks the cohesion of a proper album, but the uniformity of the raw emotion throughout offers some thrilling highpoints.
The ferocity of the first session (from late ’91) cements Ms. Harvey’s rank amongst the toughest of female rock artists. This is a quartet of harrowing performances, even more brutal than the Dry album from which they’re taken. “Oh My Lover” opens on an iconic note and, for a love song, sounds like a war zone. The ragged “Victory” reminds us that little Jackie White was not nearly the first artist binding punk sneer to blues voodoo. Better still is her masterpiece, “Sheela-Na-Gig,” which makes explicit the gender issues her mad queen vocals always suggest. With a Pixies-emulating quiet-loud structure, Polly Jean lays into the sad lad rejecting her strong sexuality as exhibitionism and mocks the prissy misogyny that would fearfully brand breasts as “dirty pillows.” The loaded imagery might fall flat if the guitars weren’t always as furious as the woman scorned. In this stripped-down environment, Harvey and her band never sounded better.
The rest of the compilation can’t possibly match the strength of that first session, continuing on a more varied and uneven path. “Naked Cousin” follows immediately with a sweaty delivery that tinges lust with the disgust demanded by the taboo subject matter. Her cover of barroom oldie “Wang Dang Doodle” adds deranged falsetto to the traditional riffage but can’t quite match her originals for lyrical or structural complexity. The odd juxtaposition in the career-spanning track list intensifies from there. The screeching savagery of the biblical “Snake” is immediately followed by the plainly pretty lament of “That Was My Veil.” The polar swings are interesting, but the balance and consistency of the first section is missed.
It’s hard not to read the closing “You Come Through,” taken from a tribute performance shortly after Peel’s passing, as a direct elegy. By 2004, Harvey’s voice had lost a bit of its bile, and the clearly sung “You be well, for me” is especially sad and vulnerable in context. The eventual lowering of the early warrior mask gives the disc an emotional arc of anger and grief. I was left with the feeling that in spite of the huge effect John Peel had on the careers of the artists he championed, his more lasting impact was deeply personal.